“As You Know, Bob…”

“As you know, Bob, the CloneMaster 3000 is powered by nuclear energy and is controlled by this switch over here.”

Don’t you just hate it when that scene appears? When a character explains to another character something that the second character already knows, merely as a way to get the information to the reader?

Imagine if we did this in real life. “As you know, Bob, this car we’re driving is powered by gasoline and controlled by this wheel before me.”

This is known as the “Info Dump.” It appears in many forms — from bulky prologues to long, technical paragraphs, to the “As you know, Bob” reveal. It is also something that should be avoided as much as possible, for obvious reasons.

First, you need to examine whether the information is even needed. Too many writers have this entire world in their head, and have spent many hours developing characters and places and back-history. They feel that all this must be shared, because otherwise, all that work was for nothing.

These authors are called “Self-Published.”

OK, that was snarky. There are indeed some very good self-published authors, but you see my point. These authors are wrong. All that background is very important for creating a believable work, but most of it should never find its way into the final draft. That stuff is for you.

Let’s assume your reader is smart. After all, he or she is reading, which already places them above the majority of the population. They can probably figure out what’s going on a lot of the time without it being explained in detail.

But there are definitely times you need to get necessary information to the reader. Find a way to drop it into the story unobtrusively. “The phone rang just as the Professor was readjusting the nuclear generator.”

The most common way to reveal the information that is needed is to have a secondary character. “As you don’t know, Bob…”

For instance, there’s the “Watson” technique. “Holmes, what does this mean?” A sidekick who needs the information to continue the adventure provides an excuse for the protagonist to dump the info. Done well, this can work great. The secondary character can be given only the bare minimum information or even the wrong information, yet provide enough for the reader to understand what is happening.

Then there’s the “Professor Exposition” technique. This one gets used a lot on TV and in movies, it seems to me. This is where the characters go to a specific person in order to have the plot explained to them. “Professor Exposition! We’re run across a hideous monster that eats bicycles and farts roses!” “Hmmm, let me check my Library of Deep Tomes. Ah! Here we are…” Sometimes you need to do this, but unless the Professor is one of the main recurring characters (like Giles on “Buffy”), it can seem forced.

Then there’s the “Fish Out of Water”. This is what I used for my two novels, ARCH ENEMIES and THE AXES OF EVIL (as well as the upcoming BLOODSUCKERS). The protagonist is placed in a new situation and must be educated by others.

For instance, in the high fantasy ARCH ENEMIES, young Terin Ostler has run away from home to become a bard. He is grabbed and brought before the Duke and told he fits the description of the Chosen One written of in the prophecy. (As it turns out, he’s not the Chosen One, but everyone thinks he is. Hijinks ensue. And deaths.) Anyway, he’s thrown into the adventure without knowing what he is supposed to do. He doesn’t know how to wield a weapon or cast a spell.

The prophecy involves keeping a mystical Arch closed to hold the imprisoned evil within. A magic ritual had been performed over 800 years previously and the magic is weakening.

Before I started writing, I knew the history of the lands, the way magic worked in the world, and what the ritual required.

I needed Terin to know certain things in order for the thrilling climactic scene to work, but he didn’t need to know everything. And what he did need to know, he didn’t need to know all at once.

His traveling companions are two squires (who have to protect him from the treasonous Duke’s men as well as the enemies who want to keep the prophecy from being completed). While on the run, the squires find time to explain certain things to Tern and give him lessons on magic. The three of them discover clues along the way. Some of the things they learn are absolutely incorrect. And there are some things that Terin never discovers until it is much too late for him (but not for the reader).

There are huge amounts of information that never made it into the book. And that’s a good thing. It just wasn’t needed in order to tell this story.

So avoid the Dreaded Info Dump, the pause that bites, the clause that sucks. Give as little as needed, in small doses, and in ways that are unobtrusive.

The bottom line is always this: Don’t Be Boring!

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2 Responses

  1. Sadly, I just finished reading a book by an established, award-winning author (not self-published) and the entire book felt like one long information dump. Rinse & repeat – every single chapter. To quote your bottom line “Don’t Be Boring!” – I was so bored. And sad. I’m supposed to write a review for this book. An author I usually love. And it’s a lot harder to write an honest review when I’m stressing about not being mean. (There’s more to it than the dump, which just makes it worse….)

  2. One of my favorite things about Lord of the Rings are those little moments when Tolkien hints at other stories set in his world but leaves them untold. It’s part of why Middle Earth feels like a real place to so many people.

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